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Should Expunging Criminal Records Be Cheap and Easy?

Katie Riordan

A couple of years ago, Dalisia Brye got into a fight.  

“I’m not perfect,” she says, adding that “a bad decision in the heat of the moment" might have been chalked up to inexperience in life.

But that bad decision left Brye with a criminal record that haunted her daily. She lost her job and despite having a college degree, struggled to find another.

“I had to, like, hold my breath when it came to background checks because I just knew they were going to see it,” the 32-year-old says. “I just knew that I probably wasn’t going to get the job.”

Brye was sentenced under what’s known as a diversion program. The good news was that her charges would disappear if she completed probation and avoided trouble. But there was a final roadblock to a clean slate—a $450 fee to expunge her record. As a single mom, Brye couldn’t afford that.

“$450 can be rent, it can be multiple months of car payments. It can be multiple months of light bill payments,” says Josh Spickler, director of Just City, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform.

For years, the organization has been covering the expungement fee for hundreds of Shelby County residents, including Brye. 

“These are kind of the best of the best,” says Spickler. “These are people who got in trouble one time in their life and are trying to put their life back together. And this $450 dollar barrier represented that last hurdle.”  

That hurdle, for the most part, will be going away on July 1.  

This year, Tennessee lawmakers voted to drop the state's expungement fee, which had already been reduced from $350 to $180 last year. For now, the $100 local portion of the fee will remain. But county officials have indicated they favor eliminating it as well.

Still, Spickler says getting any charge off a record is worth it. 

“What we know about people who get an expungement, who get a clean criminal record finally, is that their job prospects improve drastically,” he says. “Their income improves. We have stories of families whose children do better in school because mom or dad is at home at night to help with homework.”

Even after the fee goes away, expungement is still only an option for a limited number of people with records: mostly non-violent, low-level offenders.

Spickler says that out of the 1,200 people who contacted Just City last year to ask about cleaning up their criminal histories, less than 10 percent qualified.

Credit Katie Riordan
Governor Bill Lee prays before a ceremony to sign a bill eliminating the state expungement fee into law in Memphis on June 11, 2019.

Some state lawmakers, like Memphis Democrat Sen. Ramesh Akbari, want to broaden the list of non-violent offenses eligible for expungement.

“You have folks who committed these offenses 15, 20 years ago, and they’re still not able to clear their record,” she said at a recent event in Memphis to herald the erasure of state fees.

She says there’s bipartisan support for a measure expanding expungements, but some in the justice system aren’t yet sold on it. The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, a group representing the state’s 31 judicial districts, has previously expressed concern over making criminal records easier to hide from employers or the public.

“The legislature has the will,” says Akbari. “But then when you have law enforcement, particularly the DAs coming in and saying, ‘Hey we don’t think this is a good thing,’ it does carry a lot of weight.”

Dropping the state expungement fee was Republican Governor Bill Lee’s proposal. While visiting Memphis this month to ceremonially sign the expungement bill into law, he said he will continue to consider various criminal justice reform ideas. 

“We certainly want to look at how we re-enter folks more effectively,” Lee says. “We want to look at alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders so that we incarcerate less for those who are not a threat to society.”

Meanwhile, Travis Green, chief administrative officer for the Shelby County General Sessions Court, says he sees a different barrier to a clean slate. 

“It leans more towards people knowing that they can have an expungement and people really caring to get one,” he says.  

Green says that some expungements are already free and readily available, such as when charges are dropped, or a case dismissed. Few people realize that the courts don’t automatically delete those records. The courts make efforts to inform individuals who are eligible, Green says, but tracking down accurate contact information for everyone is challenging.

Credit Katie Riordan
Brye and her son at their home in south Memphis, June 9, 2019.

Green says he’d like to see the state explore a policy that would allow the court to immediately delete dismissed cases’ records.

“That would be the most impactful thing I believe that would help our customers in the community,” he says.

For Brye, who now works as a freelance publicist, social media manager and journalist, expungement allowed her a fresh start. So why after working so hard to put the past behind her, did she agree to go public with her story?

“Because I’m human,” she says. “You know, we’re all human at the end of the day.”